By mid-December of 2019, the number of international migrants across the globe had reached at least 272 million. For all of these migrants, like the millions who migrated before them, learning the local language is usually an essential first step toward self-sufficiency and economic success. Becoming fluent in the most commonly spoken language of one’s new home increases migrants’ chances of finding a job and helps them become integrated into their new community. This may be especially true for refugees who fled their nations under harsh conditions.

As it turns out, migrants differ greatly in how effectively they learn the dominant language. This means that insights into how and why migrants pick up new languages are crucial for helping migrants acquire a new language more easily. Our recent research in the Netherlands addressed this issue among a large sample of adult Syrian and Eritrean refugees.

In keeping with past research, we found that intelligence was the strongest predictor of Dutch language skills. This effect was not surprising as many earlier studies have shown that intelligence is indeed an important trait for learning knowledge and skills in work and educational settings.

But we also examined social, emotional, and motivational predictors of people’s success at picking up a new language. For example, we assessed mental health by asking participants how often they had experienced psychological distress in the previous month. We found that, the lower the psychological distress, the better the local language skills. Good mental health might offer a source of confidence and motivation to learn a new language. In addition, refugees who reported being more motivated to work had better Dutch language skills. Given that local language skills help people get and keep better jobs, having a strong desire to work may boost motivation to learn a local language.

Finally, age and educational attainment were also related to Dutch language learning. Younger adult refugees learned the local language more easily than older adults. The well-known advantage of children in second language learning thus appears to continue into adulthood. However, the degree to which this advantage is due to differences in raw ability or motivation in not clear. Older refugees might be less capable of learning a new language, or instead they might (sub)consciously question the relative cost-effectiveness of learning the local language. Consider the extreme case of a person who immigrates to a new nation at age 80. Is it really worth his or her time and effort to become fluent in a new language? Finally, a higher level of education in the person’s country of origin was an advantage. More years of formal schooling in Syria or Eritrea prior to immigration usually meant more success learning Dutch.

Although laws and policies in one’s new nation might facilitate or hinder how quickly refugees learn a new language, psychological traits may also play a role. Based on the current findings, we encourage communities to meet immigrants where they are and try to address the variables we’ve identified here. First, more intensive and user-friendly language courses should be offered to refugees who are older, who are less educated, and who score lower on intelligence tests. Second, providing professional mental health support is essential for refugees with psychological distress. Third, refugees need support and guidance in searching for jobs. These interventions could mean the difference between a bright future and years of struggle in a new home.

For Further Reading

Asfar, D., Born, M. P., Oostrom, J. K., & van Vugt, M. (2019). Psychological individual differences as predictors of refugees’ local language proficiency. European Journal of Social Psychology, 49(7), 1385-1400.


Dan Asfar is Ph.D. student at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam who studies the assessment of refugees.

Janneke K. Oostrom is an associate professor at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam who studies employee selection and assessment.